Nepali politics has always been gracious enough to leave plenty of room for disappointment. After four years politicians were given to draft a Constitution—marred by consecutive extensions—the Constituent Assembly botched its final chance at redemption in May. It collapsed empty-handed over a core issue: the federal framework of the nation. After elections are held in November, the question of federalism will undoubtedly resurface.
The federalist structure of the state thus still demands a settlement. The Maoist Party, the largest faction of Nepal’s ruling current coalition, had vowed to carve the country into states along ethnic lines—an “ethnicity-based federalism”. Its success would chart a dangerous course of disunity for Nepal’s already turbulent political and social dynamic, and threaten the fledgling republic’s democratic ideals.
Although the plan’s finer details are still hazy, it would deeply color the architecture of the Nepali state with an ethnic element, dissolving its 75 current districts in favor of 11 autonomous states (the precise number has vacillated). The crux of the proposal lies in these states being assigned to the “original settlers” of various regions. Born out of a promise the Maoists gave its supporters during the decade-long civil war, the proposal would in theory empower many marginalized ethnic groups in remote Nepal that backed the ruling faction during its years at war. In practice, it could breed much disunity in society and government.
Ethnicity is an important cultural denominator, but it should remain just that: cultural. Allowing its influence to seep into politics gives rise to several problems that have manifested recently in public protests. Across Nepal, political parties, youth organizations, and some ethnic factions themselves have denounced ethnic federalism. What exactly are they worried about?
Although it might not be immediately obvious, a system grounded in ethnicity further marginalizes the interests of many ethnic sectors. Of some 102 ethnicities in Nepal, the Maoist scheme would recognize only 11, potentially delegitimizing other groups’ ties to the land. Although fringe ethnicities demand that their voices be heard and their rights be recognized, this does not entail that rights of individuals in other groups be conceded. Such myopic arguments for ethnicity-based federalism paint the issue as a zero-sum game when it needn’t be.
The plan could also, as generations of political scientists have observed, incite conflict between groups. As regional history demonstrates, the ethnicization of politics can often breed internecine violence. History has shown repeatedly that increasing the prominence of ethnicity breeds intolerance, and catalyzes violence. A stripe of fanaticism began to appear a few weeks back in Kathmandu, where riots against alleged foreign elements erupted. When the issue resurfaces, Nepal’s leaders ought to strive toward a democratic society that empowers all citizens without arousing intolerance and animosity between groups.
Finally, the plan also lends enormous influence to powers that threaten to rip apart the fragile state. In a nation beset with separatist tumult, providing ethnic groups with states could endow weak groups with significant leverage. Representatives and residents of an ethnic domain are likely to be more sympathetic to secessionist demands. If power receded from the central government and settled on local ethnic administrations, separationist movements would be met with more support from both the populace and its leaders. This brand of federalism thus has potential to weaken the national fabric and ease secession.
The Ethnic Challenge to Democracy
In the political arena these concerns are amplified, as ethnic federalism threatens the pillars on which democratic norms rest.
If democratic practices were followed, the proposal would quickly run aground: linking territories exclusively to their indigenous inhabitants ignores Nepal’s diversity. In a recent article, Ram C. Acharya reveals that no ethnic group would become a majority within their state under the plan: the scattered distribution of ethnic populations prohibits that from happening. Each state would contain 20% to 30% of their target ethnicity, so an ethnic party wouldn’t necessarily be democratically elected to the helm of “their” state. In effect, the proposal would be symbolic. Yet this isn’t what the plan for ethnic federalism suggests.
As it stands, ethnicity-based federalism would corrode Nepal’s democratic bedrock. Providing certain groups their eponymous states would be symbolic, and only an issue of pride for other ethnicities. But Maoists have hinted that these target groups would receive other advantages in their states. If, as other parties have claimed, this entails extra-democratic privileges—say a state’s target ethnic group post holds a de jure monopoly on the post of State Minister—the proposal can’t be entertained: it is hostile to democratic norms, and its implementation would be undemocratic. When the proposal was raised in 2009, CA member Narayanman Bijukchhe questioned how Kathmandu could belong to the indigenous Newar group in a democracy when only 35% of Kathmandu residents relate to that ethnicity. Pushing the plan would be a mockery to democratic representation.
Giving Federalism a Chance
Yet opposition to ethnic states shouldn’t derail the onward progress of federalism. Nepali parties have long carried a needless grudge against the concept of a federal government. Federalism presents two distinct advantages for Nepal. First, it allows for regional development so that localized policies can be used in different provinces, rather than forcing a more generic model that works in some areas but is ill-fitting in others. Second, it brings government closer to the people, and allows the repair of a trust injured by generations of political ineptitude.
But if ethnic federalism proves destructive, what is the alternative? Federalism is best drawn with an eye on geography and socioeconomic terrain, mostly because such a system would facilitate development. This framework would run a parallel with the prior “Developmental Regions” plan, albeit with more than just five divisions, and would allow tailored policymaking for each socioeconomic stratum. This division would, admittedly, overlap somewhat with ethnicity—but it avoids the pitfalls of ethnic federalism, and carries a proven pedigree.
As attractive as self-determination for ethnic groups might seem, there’s no way to do it democratically, and without evoking unnecessary sectarian hostility. Traditional federalism, on the other hand, promises structured development and the empowerment of all citizens, instead of privileging a mere few ethnic groups.
For a glimpse into what ethnic federalism might cause, Nepal need only look at its southern neighbor, whose states were formed considering language and ethnicity. For all its development and growth, India is beset with ethnic hostility. It’s a country where members of one state can be conceived of as foreigners in another, exemplified by constant riots in Maharashtra. Its ethnic dominions discourage movement through the country, and fuel xenophobia between fellow-citizens. If India is at all a telling example, codification of ethnic federalism is not worth the ink.